Can an appellate court review a denial of summary judgment when the party failed to appeal the denial before trial or failed to renew a motion for judgment as a matter of law after the jury verdict?
After being assaulted while serving time in a federal prison, Michelle Ortiz sued two prison guards for constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on a defense of qualified immunity, and the case went to trial. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Ortiz, but the Sixth Circuit reversed on the basis of qualified immunity. Ortiz argues that the Sixth Circuit did not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal based on qualified immunity because the issue, originally raised on summary judgment, was not preserved for appeal after final judgment was entered at trial. Jordan argues that by filing a motion for summary judgment, the issue was preserved. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will give guidance to litigants on how to preserve for appeal an issue that was the subject of a denied summary judgment motion.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
May a party appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits if the party chose not to appeal the order before trial?
Petitioner Michelle Ortiz (“Ortiz”) is a former prisoner of the Ohio Reformatory for Women. See Ortiz v. Jordan, 316 Fed. Appx. 449, 450 (6th Cir. 2009). While in prison for stabbing her abusive husband, Ortiz was sexually assaulted by prison guard Douglas Schultz (“Schultz”) on two consecutive days: November 8 and November 9, 1996. See Id. The day after the first assault, Ortiz spoke with Paula Jordan (“Jordan”), acting case manager of the prison. See Id. Jordan said that it was Schultz’s last day at the prison, and that Ortiz should simply stay around other inmates so that Schultz wouldn’t have the chance to see her alone. See Id. at 450–51. Later that night, Shultz assaulted Ortiz again. See Id.
Rebecca Bright (“Bright”), the institutional investigator at the prison, took up Ortiz’s matter. See Ortiz, 316 Fed. Appx. at 451. Bright recommended that Ortiz be placed in solitary confinement for security reasons. See Id. at 451–52. Ortiz became ill in solitary confinement and was transferred to the prison infirmary, before being transferred back to her original prison cell. See Id. at 452.
Ortiz filed a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. See Ortiz v. Voinovich, 211 F. Supp. 2d 917 (S.D. Ohio 2002). Ortiz argued that Jordan did not adequately protect Ortiz from Schultz, and that Bright should not have placed Ortiz in solitary confinement. See Ortiz, 316 Fed. Appx. at 452. Before the trial was held, defendants Jordan and Bright filed a motion for summary judgment and asserted a defense of qualified immunity. See Id. The district court denied their qualified immunity and the defendants did not file an interlocutory appeal, which is an appeal before a final decision on the merits of the case. See Id. After a trial, the jury found in favor of Ortiz, awarding her $350,000 in damages against Jordan and $275,000 in damages against Bright. See id.
On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the judgment, holding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. See Id. at 455. The court noted that appellate courts do not usually review denials of summary judgment motions after a trial on the merits, but cited an exception to this rule for qualified immunity and reviewed the question of qualified immunity de novo. See id. at 453. The court then found that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity based on its finding that their conduct was not deliberately indifferent towards Ortiz’s plight. See id. at 453–54. On the basis of this finding, the Sixth Circuit reversed the jury verdict. See Id. at 454–55. Ortiz appealed the Sixth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari on April 26, 2010. See Ortiz v. Jordan, 130 S.Ct. 2371 (2010).
Can a Party Appeal a Denial of Summary Judgment over a Question of Law After Trial?
One way that trial judges can remove a case from jury decision is by granting summary judgment before trial. See Brief for Petitioner, Michelle Ortiz at 9–10. This means that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the judge grants a judgment as a matter of law. See Id.If the judge denies summary judgment the case goes to trial. See id.
Ortiz argues that a party cannot appeal a denial of summary judgment over a question of law after a full trial on the merits. See Brief for Petitioner at 21–22. As Ortiz explains, federal appellate courts only have jurisdiction to hear appeals to “final decisions” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. See Id. at 14. Ortiz acknowledges that there are some exceptions to this rule before a trial has taken place, namely the collateral order doctrine and certain interlocutory appeals authorized by 12 U.S.C. § 1292. See id. at 14–16. However, it is Ortiz’s position that after a trial has taken place denials of summary judgment cannot be appealed because, as a result of the trial superseding the denial of summary judgment, they are not “final decisions.” See Id. at 16–17.
Ortiz argues that it is erroneous that some circuits, such as the lower court in this case, have created an exception to this rule for denials of summary judgment on questions of law after a trial has taken place. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. Ortiz argues that appellate court jurisdiction arises only through statutes. See id. at 14. As a result, Ortiz contends, the fact that there is no statute that authorizes appellate jurisdiction over denials of summary judgment on questions of law after trial should make it conclusive that appellate courts do not have jurisdiction over these orders. See Id. at 23.
Ortiz further points out that Jordan had an opportunity to appeal the denial of summary judgment under the collateral order doctrine that allows interlocutory appeals of certain important questions apart from the case’s merits. See Brief for Petitioner at 15. Denials of qualified immunity often fall into this exception, but Ortiz argues that absent any further action on the part of the losing party, the right to appeal the denial of summary judgment does not survive a trial on the merits. See Id. at 16–17. Furthermore, Ortiz argues, by not immediately appealing the denial of summary judgment, Jordan’s right to appeal is time-barred, because Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) only gives a party 30 days to appeal a judgment after an order has been entered. See id. at 15–16. Ortiz argues that Jordan lost his opportunity to appeal when he failed to immediately file an interlocutory appeal, and instead decided to go to trial. See Id.Additionally, after the jury returned its verdict, the trial superseded the summary judgment proceedings and the collateral order was no longer “final.” See Id.
On the other hand, Jordan argues that appellate courts do have the authority to review denials of summary judgment as long as the issue in question is law-based, as opposed to a fact-based. See Brief for Respondents, Paula Jordan and Rebecca Bright at 8. According to Jordan, an appellate court’s jurisdiction under Section 1291 is triggered only after the court enters a “final” judgment in a separate document under FRCP Rule 58. See Id. at 8–9. Jordan argues that until the district court enters this final judgment a party can accumulate issues throughout the course of the litigation, and raise them together when appealing the final judgment. See Id.Therefore, Jordan argues, her summary judgment motion alone can preserve questions of law for appeal because the summary judgment denial merged into a final judgment after trial, and was properly appealed. See Id. at 12. In fact, Jordan disagrees that she is appealing the denial of summary judgment, but urges that she is appealing the final judgment. See Id. at 14. On the basis of this argument, Jordan rejects Ortiz’s claim that the appeal is time-barred and considers that the qualified immunity claim was simply an issue for review as part of her appeal of the final judgment. See Id.
Jordan argues that there are various compelling reasons why some courts acknowledge an exception for summary judgment over questions of law as opposed to sufficiency of the evidence, or fact-based claims. See Brief for Respondents at 12. Jordan reasons that the summary judgment motion gives notice to the parties about the contested issues, gives district courts a chance to address the issue, and most often does not involve factual developments during trial. See Id.Jordan further argues that courts have previously created a workable rule to distinguish between legal and factual claims, and that while not completely precise, it is a workable distinction for deciding whether a denial of summary judgment is capable of being appealed, and that the law-fact distinction has proved useful in previous qualified immunity cases. See Id. at 15–16. Finally, Jordan argues, there is no reason to force a party to make an interlocutory appeal by penalizing that party with the loss of the issue for review when there are good reasons that a party may want to proceed to a quick trial rather than appeal a denial of summary judgment. See id. at 24–25.
Can a Party Preserve the Issue of Qualified Immunity for Appeal Without Filing a Rule 50(b) Motion After Trial?
Another way that a trial judge can remove a case from jury decision is by granting judgment as a matter of law before the case is submitted to the jury. See Brief for Petitioner at 11. If a party’s summary judgment motion is denied, that party can file a FRCP Rule 50(a) motion to argue for judgment as a matter of law after the evidence has been heard, but before the case is submitted to the jury. See Id. at 5. If the Rule 50(a) motion is denied, the case will be submitted to the jury. See Id. at 12. After the verdict and entry of judgment, the party can then file a Rule 50(b) motion, renewing the argument that the court should grant judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative, grant a new trial. See Id.
Ortiz argues that Jordan failed to preserve the qualified immunity issue for appeal because she failed to renew the issue by filing a Rule 50(b) motion after the judgment had been entered. See Brief for Petitioner at 29. According to Ortiz, if Jordan filed a Rule 50(b) motion after the district court’s judgment, she would have preserved the qualified immunity issue for appellate court review even if she didn’t appeal the denial before trial. See Id. at 31. Ortiz uses Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc. as case support. 546 U.S. 394 (2006).InUnitherm, the Supreme Court held that the appellate court lacked jurisdiction because plaintiff failed to file a Rule 50(b) motion after the district court denied his motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a). See Id. at 17–18. According to Ortiz, the Unitherm court stated that a Rule 50(b) motion is required because of the importance of the district court judge’s post-verdict input. See Id. at 18–19. Because the district court judge sat through the trial and observed the witnesses and parties first-hand, his assessment of the questions of law is crucial, Ortiz argues. See Id.Therefore, Ortiz contends that a pre-trial summary judgment denial is appealable only if it is raised again in a renewed motion under Rule 50(b) after the trial. See Id. at 21.
Jordan disagrees and argues that filing a Rule 50(b) motion is not necessary to preserve a legal issue, such as qualified immunity, as opposed to fact-based sufficiency of the evidence issues. See Brief for Respondents at 31. Jordan argues that his qualified immunity issue is law-based, and can therefore be reviewed without filing a Rule 50(b) motion. See Id. at 35. Under Jordan’s view, only sufficiency of the evidence claims must be renewed post-trial by filing a Rule 50(b) motion, which does require the special input of the trial judge. See Id. at 31–32. Pure legal questions, Jordan argues, can be assessed at the appellate level. See id. at 32. Jordan further argues that Unitherm does not support Ortiz’s argument that Jordan was required to file a Rule 50(b) motion to preserve the qualified immunity for appeal for the same reason. See Id. at 31. Jordan argues the case only supports the proposition that a Rule 50(b) motion is required to challenge a party’s sufficiency of the evidence claim. See id. at 33.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will be of great interest to potential civil rights plaintiffs and public officials subject to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations. The decision will also resolve a circuit split and determine whether a party must file an interlocutory appeal of a denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity, giving guidance on what steps a party must take to preserve the issue on appeal. This case touches on issues of procedural fairness, judicial efficiency and the role of jury verdicts in federal appellate practice.
Role of the Jury
Ortiz argues that overturning a judgment based on arguments raised during pre-trial motion practice after a full jury trial on the merits goes against the historically important role of the jury in U.S. jurisprudence. See Brief for Petitioner, Michelle Ortiz at 8. Ortiz points out that the right to trial by jury is a sacred American right that is enshrined in the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution. See Id.The importance of the jury in U.S. legal history, Ortiz argues, is based on the idea of the jury as a democratic check on the power of the unelected judiciary. See Id. at 9. Ortiz argues that, unless a variety of specific procedural steps are taken, denials of summary judgment should not be appealable after a full trial, because the jury’s verdict supersedes the earlier proceedings. See Id. at 17.
Jordan agrees that pure issues of fact are for the jury to decide and generally not reviewable by an appellate court, but argues that the same is not true for issues of law. See Brief for Respondents, Paula Jordan and Rebecca Bright at 10–12. Acknowledging that at times the distinction between law and fact can be unclear, Jordan nevertheless contends that appellate review of legal issues that arise at the summary judgment stage is acceptable. See Id. at 16–17. Jordan considers that appellate review of legal questions does not infringe on the important role of juries, because juries are not entitled to make conclusions on the law, but are rather empowered only to make findings of facts and then apply the existing law to these facts. See Id.
Efficiency of the Legal System
Texas and 27 other states (“States”) argue that disallowing appellate review of denials of summary judgment motions based on qualified immunity if the defendant did not make an interlocutory appeal or engage in further motion practice after a judgment has been entered would decrease judicial efficiency and unnecessarily congest the federal courts. See Brief of Amici Curiae Texas, et al. in Support of Respondents at 12–13. In particular, the States urge that adopting Ortiz’s scheme would force governments to make unnecessary interlocutory appeals during civil rights litigation, thereby slowing down civil rights lawsuits and overwhelming the appellate courts. See Id. The States point out that not only would such a result increase litigation costs for governments, it would make obtaining deserved relief for civil rights plaintiffs more time-consuming and costly. See Id. Finally, the States contend that adopting Ortiz’s rule would create procedural traps for the unwary without any corresponding benefit to any of the participants. See Id.
On the other hand, Ortiz argues that allowing appellate review in this case would confuse the functioning of other rules of federal civil procedure. See Brief for Petitioner at 24. For example, Ortiz argues, allowing appellate review would undercut the policy of Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which in relevant part requires that parties renew their arguments to set a judgment aside or for a new trial after the jury has rendered its verdict. See Id. at 24–25. Ortiz contends that this process allows judges to reconsider arguments in favor or against setting the judgment aside after the judge has had a chance to hear all the evidence and puts the parties on notice of what issues are still being contested. See id. Additionally, Ortiz argues that allowing review renders meaningless the discretion of district judges to deny summary judgment and proceed to trial. See Id. at 26–27. Ortiz considers the decision to deny summary judgment as discretionary and not suitable to appellate review by judges that were not involved with the initial litigation. See Id.
The Supreme Court’s decision will clarify the circuit split involving this narrow question of federal procedure, and will affect motion practice in federal courts, particularly in civil rights litigation where qualified immunity is an issue, in the future.
The outcome of this case will resolve a split among the circuits as to the appellate courts’ jurisdiction to review an issue after trial that was raised – and denied – at the summary judgment stage. The decision will inform parties to federal civil suits of which actions they must take to preserve such issues on appeal and, in particular, will affect Section 1983 civil rights litigation where a defense of qualified immunity exists. Ortiz argues that a defendant in a civil rights suit must either immediately appeal or take several procedural steps to preserve the defense of qualified immunity on appeal. Jordan argues that requiring parties to take such steps is unnecessary and will needlessly burden civil rights litigants and the federal courts.